Wednesday, July 22, 2009
While a student counsellor will see the 'Amanda-like' students many professors don't encounter, for professors who deal with large 1st-year service courses, it's only a matter of time, given a large class size, that one has to deal with students with mild to severe mental health problems.
Sometimes the situation is mildly comical (e.g. the student is a Type A personality who is neurotic in a non-threatening Woody Allen or George Costanza-esque fashion), other times mildly worrying during one-off incidents (in one lab a student accused another student, who didn't know him from Adam, of ruining his lab experiment as part of a concerted sabotage campaign), other times quite tragic (e.g. attempted suicide in the student residence room).
I think the situation that influences and worries the most professors is the student who, when faced with failure in school or other difficulties in life while at school, loses control and lashes out at others. My blood ran cold when I saw the news about the Virginia Tech shootings. I have enough well-adjusted students as it is who collapse into tears and despair, or place the entire blame on me, upon getting a poor grade in my course, thus being denied what in their mind is their predestined placement in med/law/dentistry school et al., and I worry about the student who will take those emotions and lash out at me.
I never have such encounters with upper-year students, they've done poorly on some other course before and know it isn't the end of the world, or they know the system well enough to drop the course early if things aren't going their way. It's the first year students who got all A-pluses in high school, and aren't doing as well in their first term, who worry me. Some have come in raging-mad angry, others come in and proceed to collapse in tears onto my office floor, they come into my office after the first midterm and start talking about how their life is ruined, they'll be out on the street because their parents will kick them out for failing in school, and I start eyeing the distance to the phone and trying to recall the extension number for Security, just in case...